The movement that Jesus created died with humiliating death on a Roman cross in Jerusalem around 30 AD. The resurrection alone explains, grounds, begins, and justifies what happened next. What happened next changed history. What happened next encompasses every reason you should embrace Christianity. What happened next was the resurrection.
The resurrection provides a reasonable basis upon which to embrace Christianity, for 5 reasons:
1. The appearances of the resurrected Jesus2. The impact of the appearances3. The explanation of the appearances4. The reason for the resurrection5. The power of the resurrection.
These 5 powerful considerations are like the evidence in a murder trial. Each piece of evidence by itself may or may not bring you to a definitive conclusion, but together they provide a robust case for concluding that Christianity is true and worthy of our embrace.
1. First, let’s consider the early testimony of the appearances. We have numerous, early witnesses to the resurrection. Not only are there over a dozen physical appearances of the resurrected Jesus mentioned in the 4 gospels and their unique source material, but also in the early letters of Paul from within a few decades of Jesus’ death. Paul himself mentions an appearance of Jesus to over 500 eyewitnesses in a letter that virtually all scholars except as authentic: 1 Corinthians (from the early 50s AD). Let me provide you with some quotations from only non-Christians as to what they say about this early evidence.
First, consider Antony Flew (1023-2010), one of the most outspoken atheists of the 20th century who abandoned his atheism in 2004. He never became a Christian, but says:
“The evidence for the resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion. It's outstandingly different in quality and quantity.”
Much of this evidence has been studied by Bart Ehrman (1955-), a prominent and outspoken skeptical New Testament scholar. He argues, on historical grounds, that a former Christian persecutor named Paul had what he thought to be an experience of the risen Jesus. He then met with Peter (a former cowardly disciple) and Jesus’ brother James (a former skeptic) to receive a creed about the resurrection going back to within about two years of Jesus’ death.
What explains the fact that these men were proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection so shortly after his death? Ehrman maintains it must be that they had experiences that changed them. This is the reason, he argues, they proclaimed Jesus to be God before the gospels were written! Keep in mind that Bart Ehrman is an agnostic who describes himself as “leaning towards atheism.” He doesn’t believe in the resurrection, but he argues that the very earliest disciples did since they had – at least what they thought to be – experiences of the risen Jesus.
Then there’s Pinchas Lapide (1922-1997), a scholar and Orthodox Jewish Rabbi, who goes further and argues that the resurrection was a historical fact. He writes, “I accept the resurrection of Jesus not as an invention of the community of disciples, but as a historical event.” Although he doubted the gospels, he refused to deny the resurrection for two main reasons.
First, he joins the vast majority of NT scholars by arguing that Jesus’ women followers, former skeptics, doubters and disciples had experiences of the risen Jesus.
Second, he discusses the empty tomb. He writes, “according to all four Gospels, women are the first ones to find the tomb of Jesus empty. In a fictional narrative one would have avoided making women the crown witnesses of the resurrection since they were considered in rabbinic Judaism as incapable of giving valid testimony.”
We have early, independent testimony and an empty tomb. We have scholars from all sides weighing in. We have a dead Jesus movement, and then we have what happens next. We have a resurrection.
2. We have now considered the early sources, but their testimony is only strengthened if we consider the impact. The earliest witnesses not only experienced Jesus’ resurrection, but they consequently changed the way they lived. Why would pious Jews change their day of worship from the Sabbath – on Saturday – to the Lord’s day – on Sunday? Similarly, why would Jews allow Roman pagans into the church? Only if they saw Jesus’ resurrection as a proof that God called both Jews and Gentiles, not merely as enemies to be reconciled, but as sinners to be saved. Why would Jesus’ skeptical brother give up his life – as recorded by the Jewish 1st century historian Josephus? Why would cowardly disciples suddenly sacrifice homes, jobs, even their lives to share their message?
Neither did this happen in a corner, like some modern cult. It happened in the city where Jesus’ tomb lay empty. Nothing explains these events adequately except Jesus’ resurrection. The very fact that we’re having this discussion here today in North America about a crucified Jewish radical reflects the power of that resurrection that jump-started the spread of Christianity in Jerusalem.
So far we have looked at the facts of the early appearances and their impact. Now, in case there is any doubt about the scholarly basis for these facts, Dr. Gary Habermas, an established and internationally recognized authority on resurrection, has compiled a list of more than 2,200 sources in French, German, and English in which experts have written on the resurrection from 1975 to the present. From this wide array of scholars – Christian and skeptic – the overwhelming majority agree on these historical facts:
1. Jesus died by crucifixion.2. He was buried.3. His death caused the disciples to despair and lose hope.4. The tomb was empty.5. The disciples had experiences which they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus (the most important proof).6. The disciples were transformed from doubters to bold proclaimers.7. The resurrection was the central message.8. They preached the message of Jesus’ resurrection in Jerusalem.9. The Church was born and grew.10. Orthodox Jews who believed in Christ made Sunday their primary day of worship.11. James was converted to the faith when he saw the resurrected Jesus (James was a family skeptic).12. Paul was converted to the faith (Paul was an outsider skeptic).
3. These facts need to be explained, and are best explained by Jesus’ resurrection. Having looked at the appearance and their impact, let’s consider their explanation. There is a resurrection-shaped hole in history only explained by its truth. And in this case, its truth is supernatural. Often, skeptics at this point apply Occam’s razor and argue that a natural explanation is always better than a supernatural because it is always simpler –no “God” explanation needed. Occam’s razor states that, all things being equal, the simplest explanation is the best. But let’s consider that not all explanations are created equal.
Sometimes the simplest explanation is plainly wrong, because it fails to conform to facts or has little explanatory power. In such a case, a more complex, but far more powerful explanation is actually better, especially if no feasible alternative exists. Such is the case with the resurrection - all offered alternative explanations, like the disciples had hallucinations or visions, or they stole and hid the body, or Jesus never died on the cross and it is all a conspiracy fail the test of history, logic and science. All naturalistic explanations fail, and yet the historical and religious context of the resurrection further solidifies and confirms a supernatural explanation. To repeat and emphasize, we have looked at the appearances, the impact, and the fact that the resurrection of Jesus best makes sense of this material.
4. But furthermore, this fact is overwhelmingly strengthened by the completely unique historical/redemptive reason for the resurrection. What do I mean with this? I mean that the resurrection isn’t just an incredible historical event, but is unique. It is unique in that it, alone – and Christianity alone – provide the basis of salvation through divine accomplish rather than human achievement. And the resurrection was proclaimed as the proof of this divine accomplishment.
First, think about the Bible with me. It’s an incredible book: if you take the 10 best texts of ancient history and their manuscript evidence doesn’t equal that of the NT in quantity, not to mention quality and early dating. We have over 5600 Greek manuscripts of the NT alone, but remove these, take away the testimonies about Jesus from Greek, Roman, and Jewish ancient historians – Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus, Pliny the Younger - we could still reconstruct the entire NT from church fathers (36k). This doesn’t mean that everything in the Bible is true, but it points to something that sets the Judeo-Christian worldview apart from Buddhism, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism: we have a tremendous amount of historical manuscript evidence and corroboration.
But what’s even more interesting is if you take the Koran – you have 110 Suras (chapters), 1 recitation, 1 author, but no consistent message. But the Bible is 66 books, 40 plus authors, written in 3 languages on 3 continents, over centuries of time. And yet the Bible has one message: the plan of redemption. This message remains no matter how you categorize the genres of the Old Testament or what you believe about its historical reliability.
If I could some up this theme, I would use the word substitute. The idea was a substitute for sin: Death for life. We have hints of this in the accounts of Abraham and Isaac, Moses and the Passover, but even more clearly in the sacrificial system in which an innocent lamb dies in the place of a guilty worshiper. This becomes even more clear in the foreshadowing the perfect sacrifice - Isaiah 53:5:
he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.
This was undeniably written centuries before Jesus was born. But it’s also why John the Baptist - a contemporary of Jesus, also mentioned by the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus - looked at Jesus and said, “behold the lamb of God, which takes away the sin of the world!”
What I want to emphasize about the resurrection is what it meant in its historical context. It wasn’t a mythological legend about the harvest cycle, it was the proof that Jesus alone was the culmination of that scheme of redemption. I want to repeat this again now: only Jesus fulfills a scheme of redemption in this remarkable way – take Buddha, Mohammed, Krishna, Confucius – and remove them from their religions – the ethical and foundational concepts would still stand.
But the resurrection was the unique proof that only Jesus accomplished the payment of our sin before a holy God. No other religion claims a resurrection as a proof of a divine redemptive accomplishment.
This also adds a context to Jesus’ unique claim to divinity. He didn’t claim to be a deified man, like Caesar, but the incarnate God YHWY – the transcendent God who created the universe and made Himself known through the Jewish people. Huston Smith, expert in world religions, remarks that only two people in history have prompted the questions, not “Who are you?” But, “What are you?” They are Buddha and Jesus. Buddha said he wasn’t a prophet or an angel, just a man. Jesus said he wasn’t an angel or just a prophet, but the Son of God. In fact, his claim to be a divine savior figure was the reason he was condemned, according to the gospel of Mark, which the majority of skeptical scholars argue is the earliest of the 4 gospels.
Jesus alone in history says salvation is in Himself because only He can be our righteous substitute, since he is the infinitely holy sacrifice who provides satisfaction for our sin against an infinitely holy God.
I understand that these concepts might be hard to understand from an outsider’s perspective, but they place Jesus on an entirely different plain from other religious figures or great persons of history, and they add a compelling context to the resurrection.
Jesus had no army, held no political office, never wrote a book, never received academic training, never campaigned abroad. He was a Jewish lower-class peasant with an itinerant 3-year preaching ministry.
But we know more about Him than about some of the greatest statesmen of his time. James Francis remarks: “I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, and all the navies that ever were built, and all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, put together have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has that One Solitary Life.” Jesus was unique.
This is what’s I’m trying to emphasize: not only is there early and compelling evidence for the early bodily appearances, early creedal statements, an empty tomb, a radical change in behavior of Jesus’ followers, and the remarkable origin of the Jesus movement – but the entire claim of resurrection as the proof for a historically redemptive plan – is completely remarkable.
5. Why should you embrace Christianity? I have argued that you should, because it is true. So far, we have discussed the early appearances, the aftermath, the explanation, and the remarkable and unique context of the resurrection in redemption history. But wait. There is more. Embrace Christianity, because of what the resurrection means for you: the power of the resurrection.
We all have a desire for “More” – call it meaning, transcendence, etc. This is confirmed by our philosophers and our poets alike (Sartre, Nietzsche, even Mick Jagger). When Mick Jagger wrote the song, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” he wasn’t saying that he wasn’t getting enough sex, was he? He was saying that in this midst of the all of the sex, the money, and the fame he was totally empty. That’s what is so profound about this desire for more. It is experienced most powerfully, not in the failures, but in the successes of life.
G.K. Chesterton put it this way: “Meaninglessness does not come from being weary of pain, meaningless comes from being weary of pleasure.”
Deion Sanders, "Neon Deion," is an incredible athlete who played professional baseball and football for the Atlanta Braves and Dallas cowboys. In an interview, he was once asked, “When did God come into your life?” Has said it was night he won the Super Bowl. He went home, and he’d never felt more empty.
This is how he describes it, in his own words:
“That was the same week I bought myself a brand new $275,000 Lamborghini, and I haven’t even driven a mile before I realized, “No, that’s not it. That’s not what I’m looking for. It’s got to be something else, I’m so hungry.“I tried everything. Parties, sex, buying expensive jewelry and gadgets, and nothing helped. There was no peace. I mean I was playing great. I got all this media attention and everything the world has to offer, but no peace, no joy, just emptiness inside.“Later that night I got up and opened my Bible to a passage that said, “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9-10). The words hit me like a ton of bricks. I put my trust in Jesus and I asked Him into my life.”
Then he called his attorney, to tell him the good news. He had to tell somebody! The resurrection speaks into our existential dilemma, and it grounds the hope that there is more than this life. Furthermore, it meets us in our real moral dilemma. Malcolm Muggeridge, the secular journalist who popularized mother Theresa and later on converted to Roman Catholicism writes:
“The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.”
Maybe you’ve never felt that you’ve done wrong, or are broken, or are guilty before a holy God. If so, the resurrection proves you’re wrong. It proves that there is a God who provides real forgiveness to a real sinner.
But if you aren’t perfect, like me, and feel your need for something more, a way to save you from yourself – rest assured that you can embrace Christianity not just because it is true, but also because it is good news.